land use

Whose Neighborhood?

When we try to fix a place, who are we trying to ‘fix’ it for?

Neighborhood Demographics

So I’m writing a report at work about an area that has some sensitive history and a whole lot of problems. The neighborhood (which will remain anonymous, since I’m still working on this damn project) is a predominately black and Hispanic community, and has been since the early 60s. Redlining has played a significant role here, as has the construction of nearby highways, the use of eminent domain to disrupt existing residential areas (as late as the 80s) and more than one ‘revitalization’ campaign. 

A population density map of a sub-area in the study. 1 dot represents 10 people. Red dots are black people, purple are Hispanic, green are Asian, yellow are American Indian or Alaskan, orange are people classifying as bi-racial or mixed race, light blue are white people, and dark blue are those classifying as some other race than those mentioned.

Infrastructure for biking and walking, such as sidewalks, is often old and in need of replacement, as are many of the homes. Vacant buildings and empty lots are a frequent sight.  

Income and quality of life statistics for this community show that people are struggling: according to data from the American Community Survey, the residents of this area have incomes lower than median income for their city, and the area has higher-than-average unemployment, as well as poor public health outcomes, such as a high percentage of residents with chronic conditions like as asthma (15%) and obesity (30%). In short, this is a neighborhood that HUD would classify as an area of concentrated poverty, a poverty disproportionately experienced by people of color. 

Given the financial challenges faced by residents and the existence of degraded environmental conditions in the area, it is tempting to assume that this neighborhood is economically undeveloped and lacks capital. This is in fact what I assumed. Until I started looking into the data on jobs. And oh boy, was I wrong.

Who lives, here, who works here

Based on data from the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data (which is available for years 2002-2017 and hosted by the census here) it’s clear that this neighborhood does, in fact, have a lot of economic activity. This area has 27,000 residents and about 13,000 jobs. This is about 1 job per every two people, which is not a terrible rate when you consider that some of the residents are children and older people who don’t work. 

Yet the rates of unemployment in this area get as high as 30% in some cases. (Unemployment is calculated as the share of people without a job who are part of the available labor pool–meaning not including children, disabled people who cannot work, and retired people). So what is going on here, exactly?

The picture makes more sense when you realize that the majority of the jobs in the study area are held by people who live outside of the corridor. In fact, Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data (or LEHD) has a handy calculator that allows you to count exactly how many people both live AND work in the corridor. Of those 13,000 jobs I mentioned earlier, only about 600 are held by residents of the neighborhood. 600. That’s just under 5%. 

A quick illustration of what American Community Survey gives you information on vs what LEHD tracks. This article only discusses and compares the first and third items: residents who live here, and workers who work here. The middle category, employed people who live here (but work elsewhere) is an interesting item, but paints a similar picture: employed people in this community must drive drive drive to reach jobs that pay less than the ones outside their door.

The story gets even more complicated when you look at the racial breakdown of the workers who come into the study area for a paycheck, but don’t live there (Oh yes, LODES tracks this too!) and compare it to the racial breakdown of the residents. In 2015, 82.4% of the workers in this area were white, and 92.6% identified as not Hispanic or Latino. 13.5% of workers were black. 

Compare this to the profile of the residents: in 2015, only 40% of residents were white, and only 60% identified as not Hispanic or Latino. This means white and non-Latino people are over-represented in area jobs by almost 40% and 30%, respectively.  Consider also that black people in this area represent 33% of the population. This means that they are participating in this particular labor market at less than half the rate we would expect, given the demographics of the area. 

There are a couple caveats I should mention here about the LEHD data. The first, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is that it counts workers, and not residents, so in a certain sense we would not expect the percentages to match perfectly if some groups have a higher number of elderly or children contributing to their population, and less people of working age. The second caveat is that LEHD worker data only includes jobs paid into the unemployment system, and thus did not count workers who work for themselves or for cash. 

But let’s review the whole picture, even give these caveats: 1. Despite being an economically struggling area, this corridor has a lot of jobs. 2. Most of the black and brown people who live in this neighborhood are not employed by the companies that operate here, and 3. Most of the workers who come into the study area, make money here, and then leave are white. (A 4th consideration: the jobs tracked by LEHD are the most secure jobs, ie the ones that pay into unemployment, and the fact that these are the jobs held by white people is also very telling). 

Should the racial composition or workers match the racial composition of residents in any given neighborhood? Those who believe that people should be able to work where they live, and live where they work would say yes, that would be an indication that economic conditions in the area are fair. However, in this neighborhood, I suspect there are even more insidious reasons why this is not the case, and it has to do with land use. 

Mr. Segregation meets Mr. Mixed Use

One commonly cited cause of urban decline is the great physical divides between our homes and our jobs. The blame is often placed on use-based zoning in traditional planning. As the story goes, Euclidian zoning and the mania of those out of control 1960s planners (the same ones that torn down all those neighborhoods and historic churches to build highways) left us with an environment of strictly segregated uses–suburbs full of homes and parks but no commercial, no stores, no job centers–downtowns full of offices, but very few affordable residences. Damn those 1960s planners and their megalomania, enforcing upon us the utopia of the car! 

Thus our go-to panacea for fixing such ‘broken’ environments is to insist on building and encouraging more mixed use. Yes, that will solve the problem! If only we build cute commercial storefronts with affordable housing above, and cute townhomes within walking distance of a nearby grocery store, then that will really curb the hegemony of the car, and with it, all those pernicious VMTs and fumes. If we had TRUE mixed use, then jobs could be located next to homes, and people would walk! 

This generalization sounds appealing but borders on fantastical (and ridiculous) when you examine the composition of this specific area. Like many older black and brown neighborhoods, this area is ALREADY mixed use–there are tons of stores, gas stations, schools, and homes all mixed in together in the same block, with very little separation by use. Why is this the case? Because as new white suburbs being created in the 60s were zoning out anything that might be undesirable to residents–such as gas stations and auto shops–they were subsequently displacing those uses to other neighborhoods. (I think planners today often forget the very reason for use segregation in the first place–some uses can be toxic to human health, cause lots of traffic, and be generally unpleasant to live around.) Specifically, they were displacing those uses into neighborhoods that didn’t have the wealth, political clout, or knowledge of the process to object. Like this neighborhood. 

According to Dorcetta Taylor and countless other environmental justice researchers, race (rather than income) is still a greater predictor of whether or not a person is living close to a toxic use. This corridor is a clear example of this. It is one of the least-white parts of the city; it also has the most mixed-uses, with a particularly large component of said mix being industrial uses. A close look at the block level shows any places where residential lots back right up to industrial properties, including an old rail line and a number of abandoned brownfield sites. 

A very mixed-use neighborhood. Orange is commercial, green is vacant, light blue is civic, yellow is residential, purple is industrial. You can see residential areas and homes located right across the street from, or backing up to, major industrial areas.

Let’s connect this back to jobs, and the insidious element I was talking about earlier. When you examine the type of employment most prominent in this area, the greatest share (26%) goes to manufacturing. All these large industrial properties, from warehouses to some small factories to shipping centers, are the main employment drivers of this area. As I mentioned earlier, the workers in these manufacturing centers live far east and west of the corridor (but not in it). And, given how poorly residential areas seem to be buffered from the pollution and traffic of the big industrial employers–why would they want to buy a house here, or live here?

Let’s finish painting this picture. Our study corridor is a highly industrial area, where jobs in those industries go to workers who live, sleep, and eat elsewhere. Meaning the industrial uses of the area degrade the environment, while the capital and wealth derived from this activity are siphoned out. Meanwhile, residents who are not employed by these businesses must still deal with the conditions created by them in the form of environmental effects. Any attempts they make to resist these uses or expel them for the corridor will be called ‘bad for jobs.’   

Like Time, where do the dollars go? 

The businesses that operate here do not only make money for the workers and businesses, but also for the city, who receives taxes for productive commercial and industrial uses. The residents of this neighborhood, then, are absorbing a great deal of impacts and risks so that the city and its chief beneficiaries can continue to do business as usual. And the white people that indirectly benefit live elsewhere. 

When we talk about what extraction looks like in black and brown communities, this is just one version of what it looks like. White institutions benefit tremendously from being able to displace negative effects and risks onto brown communities while reaping the benefits of those behaviors. It is these same white institutions that then turn around, clutch their pearls, and call vulnerable brown communities ‘troubled’ or ‘lacking investment.’

In short: if you are asked to look into a ‘troubled’ neighborhood and diagnose its ills, start with the people that are making money off of it. And if you don’t start dealing with segregation, no amount of programmed mixed use is ever going to address the underlying issue–anti blackness, black and brown economic exclusion, and black and brown spatial isolation.

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